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The Last Time She Died excerpt

Prologue

Ten Years Ago

Three go into the forest.

Two squint against the lash of rain, grunt with the effort it takes to half carry, half drag the third through the claw of branches and brambles. Mud already slick beneath their boots. Feet already sodden.

One of them wishing to be anywhere but here.

The other just wishing it done.

Their burden is not yet sixteen. Easier to haul than a full-grown adult but…

Dead weight.

Dead.

If not quite yet, then she soon will be.

Doesn’t matter much, either way.

Long dark hair, matted with dirt and blood, hides the ruin of her face.

Long dark night hides the ruin they hope to avoid.

Long dark rain keeps the poachers in their beds.

Torch beams hit falling water, slicing down. Illuminating little. Nothing to see but trees and night. And the eyes of hidden watchers, lurking just beyond.

No condemnation there. Only hunger. They’ll scavenge what you bring, if you don’t bury it deep.

‘He better be here,’ mutters the first. The rain bites through the band of his hat, crawls beneath his collar, swamps his gloves. His hands are numb.

‘He will be,’ says the second, waits a beat. ‘He has the most to lose.’

The implication penetrates faster than a blade.

The first man shivers, trudges on.

In a clearing ahead, the sudden flare of headlights blinds them, catches them in a frozen tableau that has no extenuation.

This can only be what it is.

A body dump.

A diesel engine turns and catches, belching out smoke that mists against the lights, against the rain.

Clanking, the machine lurches forward. The arm drops and the bucket rakes the shifting ground. It lifts and swings aside. Water gushes down, gushes in, trying to fill the void. But even on this night, the storm cannot compete.

In minutes, the makeshift grave is dug. The operator shifts the arm to one side and lowers it, almost gently, to rest the bucket nose down. An elephant folding its trunk and taking a bow.

At no time does the operator leave the shelter of the cab.

Sighing, the two who brought the body position it closer. The first man takes the feet, keeps his gaze averted. But the second clears the tangled hair from the features, as if trying to match the living to the dead, one last time. Reaches for the slender neck. Sees the silver locket on the narrow chain.

‘Bit late to check for a pulse, isn’t it?’ snaps the first. He glances, then quickly away.

The second does not answer. He grips her jacket, jerks her up and over.

It is a long drop to the bottom of the hole.

Afterwards, he is never sure if the sound he hears is merely air impacted from the lungs, or some kind of final cry.

They do not wait to see the digger’s arm rise again. They are already turning, heads slanted into the rain as they retrace their steps.

Three went into the forest.

Only two came back.

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